Don has been a professional software developer in Chicago since 1990, during which time he has had the great fortune to work at many types of companies, employing varied technologies including bio-informatics, artificial intelligence, and global investment banking, to name a few.
A few years ago, Don decided to give back to the Chicago community. He sought out opportunities to lend his experience to those who might benefit. He began mentoring at the Founder Institute, and then The Code Academy (now The Starter League). In the summer of 2011, Don co-founded The Mobile Makers Academy, and as the lead instructor, ushered much needed iOS development talent into new careers. Don continues to be an active advisor to Uncharted Learning, the current Mobile Makers parent company, including developing high school curriculum as the industry changes. Don also teaches and mentors teachers, and most recently guest lectured at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern.
Don has been an outspoken advocate for women and girls in tech, seeking to bridge the technology gap by exposing the fun and creative side of programming. He frequently mentors both high school and college students who display an interest in technology and coding.
Don is also a partner and co-founder of Eight Bit Studios. He loves meeting new developers, seeing their tremendous potential, and giving them the opportunity to be great. At Eight Bit Studios, Don develops software on various studio projects, careful to learn something new with each one.
How did the concept for Eight Bit Studios come about?
My partner, John Ostler, was the maniac behind the formation of Eight Bit Studios. John, Steve (the third leg of the table), and I were all at a design firm when we met. John was taking notice of team members who always seemed to have a side hustle going on. Throughout my career, I find I am drawn to certain new technologies. I was an early adopter to Java and had been working in that technology for around 10 years when I discovered Ruby on Rails back in 2007 and I started working on a side project. Within a year of that, I met John. John always has something spinning in his mind and Steve just can’t stop ideating and executing concepts that have always delighted me. The three of us had a merry band of side-hustling contributors when the iPhone SDK dropped in 2008, and I jumped on it immediately. Back in the early ’90s, I had been a NeXTStep developer, and as NeXTStep was the progenitor, it was technology I was already familiar with. John, Steve, and I decided to focus all of our energy on iPhone apps within a week and we’ve been unstoppable ever since.
How was the first year in business?
Ha! It was pretty lean! We were very scrappy, to say the least. Our founder story, and what I like to see as our differentiator, was focused on our leadership diversity: John on UX, Steve on design, and me running tech. We weren’t kids; I had 20 years of experience under my belt. John and I took a lot of meetings, and I became the primary salesperson for the first 18 months. For me, that was fun and interesting. I’m good with people, I can talk about pretty much anything, I’m insatiably curious, and I was selling me and my partners so it felt very natural to me. It was a fortuitous beginning for Eight Bit. We started taking on client work in 2009, which turned out to be the year the startup took over the city of Chicago. Northwestern University’s Kellogg and The University of Chicago’s Booth schools both started churning out students from their respective entrepreneurial tracks and technical incubators were forming. The city was booming with startup ideas and capital was beginning to flow. As I look back now, it was a somewhat risky move for us, but we decided that our vertical would be startups. From there, it became a whole lot of fun. That first year, we hired a freelance Ruby on Rails developer and a freelance project manager. We were five people, churning out products and having a great time.
What was your marketing strategy?
During that initial phase, it was all word of mouth, networking, and building relationships. Our unofficial strategy, and it hasn’t really changed, was to be nice to everyone. Chicago is an odd city. It’s a big city, by US standards, but it feels very small. If you spend a few years working and going to events in Chicago, you will likely run into people you know over and over again. It becomes pretty important to cultivate relationships and that’s something we still do to this day. In the long run, it’s all about doing good work, and we believe, delighting the end user.
It’s also worth pointing out that, at the talented hand of John Ostler, we have always had killer SEO. Both Steve and John have always been aggressive and diligent with our online presence. Our website went through a few major evolutions during the first few years of our existence. We were re-tooling as we heard people talk about us and how we presented ourselves.
How fast did the company grow during the first few years?
Eight Bit Studios was, and still is, a privately-held company, bootstrapped with our savings accounts from the beginning. Growth was slow and reactive. After around a year-and-a-half, we hired Brett Mackie, our first operational hire, as sales and accounts manager. Brett is currently a managing partner and has been with us for close to 8 years, nearly our entire run. Outside of that, our first hires were in reaction to developing the products that we were hired to build.
How do you define success?
Success for me is waking up every day and wanting to do what is ahead of me. I don’t focus too much on what some might call “financial success.” Early in my career, I adopted the XXX: do what you love and the money will follow. Saying that, I fully realize that I come from a place of privilege AND I am a coder, the latter meaning, in the year 2019, I will never be without employment opportunities. For most of my career, I drifted aimlessly, and without much focus, in and out of management rolls. The one single-driving force was a pull toward technology. I found myself drawn into new technology. I got the web bug and wrote my first web application in 1993-1994. I found myself drawn to Java when 1.0 was released mostly due to the story behind the team that wrote the language. Ruby on Rails caught my eye one weekend after struggling to get a quick prototype idea off the ground using standard enterprise Java tools. When iOS came out, I finally saw a market for my love of Object-C/Smalltalk. What I now love and appreciate about my career path is that I have always had my hands in the code and I have continually-adopted new skills and THAT has allowed me to thrive in my current role, leading a team of talented creators at Eight Bit Studios.
What is the key to success?
Be passionate. After nearly 9 years of working with clients at Eight Bit, I just only realized a pattern to our selection process. Our best clients love what they do. They’re passionate about their work! Whether it’s gardening or internal brand and marketing tools, we find that all we really need is for our clients to love what they do. If you love what you do, if you’re passionate and tirelessly curious, you’re going to be successful, keeping in mind of course that I do not measure success in terms of how many private helipads you own.
What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
This is the longest job I’ve ever had and it’s the longest span of time I’ve officially spent in a leadership position. I like to think of myself as a lifelong learner, and as such, I am forever trying to better myself. I recently discovered that my management style is that of a servant leader. It was honestly like a ray of sunshine broke through the gloomy cloud cover and angels sang. I’m all about listening to people and building consensus. Until very recently, I thought I was a weak leader and armed with this new understanding, I’ve been able to get out of my own head and be the leader I am, without some of that nagging fear that I’m screwing it all up.
On the business side, I think one of our biggest company lessons aligns with value. The instant we devalue ourselves through “discounts” or some other conciliatory compensatory move, our clients will fall in line and perceive our value decrease. It took a long time to learn and an even longer time to navigate how to do right by our clients and our teams; do the right thing without setting ourselves up for failure.
What are some quotes that you live by?
“Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere.” – Ratatouille
That quote for me sums up my personal passion for life, work, and learning. Not everyone can be at the top of their field, certainly. That’s a mathematical certainty. If everyone is at the top of their field, you have to move the top to find the top of the top. So, if you’re not great, how good are you? I’m definitely not a great coder or a great technologist, but I’m ruthlessly persistent. That continuous persistence has fueled my creativity and curiosity. After 30 years, in my case, I have amassed enough experience and historical perspective that my point of view has become extremely valuable to some people. So, not great, but extremely valuable. I’m cool with that.
What are some of your favorite books?
I read all of the time. I’m not exaggerating. I have a strict pattern for reading. Fiction and then non-fiction, and repeat. Right now, I am reading How to Win Friends & Influence People by Dale Carnegie based on a friend’s recommendation. Aside from sometimes sounding like a 1920’s film, it’s got some really good hidden gems in it. A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving is one of my all-time favorite fiction books. It changed my perspective on storytelling and blew my young adult mind with its narrative presentation. One of my all-time favorite business books is Give and Take by Adam Grant. Having read this book fairly recently, I am surprised by how much it changed the way I think of myself. I’m a giving servant leader, which, without the proper context, can seem weak in the leadership areas. I’m not comfortable telling someone what to do without first gathering information. Give and Take freed my mind in an amazing way. I also read The Harvard Business Review or MIT’s Technology Review every morning before work.
Tell me about one of the toughest days you’ve had as an entrepreneur.
I’m going to relay one of the hardest realizations I’ve had as an owner. The hard entrepreneur stories are all pretty standard and I think any entrepreneur has lived through them. Frankly, they all tend to sound a bit self-serving after a while. I recently realized, after 8 solid years in leadership, that the bar is set really high for me. Recognition is hard to come by, sometimes. I achieve something that’s really amazing, for me, given all that’s on my plate, and it’s seemingly taken for granted. I realize that’s a good problem, how people have that much trust in me, but at the same time, living with the mental conflict of wanting recognition at the same time has been a hard balance to achieve.
When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
I lean heavily on my leadership team. For several years, it was just me and my two co-founders. We eventually created a managing partner role and have promoted two people to that position: Heather Brown and Brett Mackie. It has diversified our leadership team and given all of us more avenues to seek out help. I am so extremely lucky and grateful to be surrounded by these amazing people. I can’t tell you how often I’ve been having a rough week and one of them will stop me, mid-stride, and ask if there is anything they can do help. This often happens when they are being challenged themselves. I can’t praise my partners enough. I could never do this job alone and I wouldn’t want to do it with anyone but them.
What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
This is something I get asked a lot from young entrepreneurs. Validate your ideas first. The Lean Startup book and the “Lean Canvas” are excellent tools to begin planning your strategy and what your product looks like once you starting measuring it against revenue and competition. It’s also good to think about the size and scope of the problem you’re trying to solve. Some problems are what we might call aspirin problems, meaning that they address convenience or a minor annoyance. Other problems are what we might call a morpheme-level problem; the pain is excruciating, there is no end in sight, and we would do almost anything for relief. This translates into a market welcome for possibly early adoption.
Do your research and homework. We find it most helpful when a startup comes to us armed with knowledge. It’s very helpful if you understand how products work; how the sausage is made. The more you know going in, the easier time you’re going to have building the trust you’ll need in your team to get things built.
The final piece of advice I love to give: cast aside the obsession with being first to market. It’s okay, even sometimes better, for others to beat you so you can learn from their mistakes. Keep in mind that Google was 5th to the race and the leaders of the historic search engine past are relics to our memory, except for Ask Jeeves…that guy’s got grit!
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This interview was conducted for research purposes by author Jason Navallo for his upcoming book, Underdog.
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